Can't Help It

This collection of short stories shows what 'happily ever after' looks like in the real world

A glance at the perfectly picked cover art for this new collection of short stories by K.L Cook will tell you what you're in for: It's "Orpheus and Eurydice," from a 1992 acrylic by Stephen Schultz. Picturing Eurydice following Orpheus up from the dark of Hades, it shows her gazing at him with trust, hope and love. They're almost into the light. Schultz has captured Orpheus, however, at the very moment when he's about to turn and look back. He clearly just can't help it.

Things, as you'll recall, don't work out so well for them.

In Love Songs for the Quarantined, Prescott resident Cook presents 16 finely wrought stories about the sublime and stumbling, the caring and cruel in romantic and family relations.

The collection is divided into four sections. While none of the stories repeats characters or situations, themes and characters' qualities are so similar that they begin to paint a familiar picture. Most of the protagonists are male. With the exception of those in Part III, the characters are working-class. They live in dusty parts of Texas or Oklahoma. Their examined relationships are with wives, mothers, siblings, uncles, stepfathers. Some have issues with alcohol. Some have issues with anger. Some beat their wives, then beg forgiveness. Some are children helplessly listening to the beatings. To one degree or another, most just can't help it.

The book opens with an award-winning period piece seemingly unrelated to the rest of the collection. But "Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard" introduces themes that recur: emotional ambivalence; and a secret longing or capacity for violence, shame or guilt. Cook sets up the improbable—but engaging—situation of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde dropping in to visit distant cousins. The point-of view character is a 13-year-old who's quit school because his father is dying. The boy and his father have been riveted to accounts of the gang's exploits, and this visit provides a guilty pleasure. In a moment of epiphany, the boy realizes that his father and their infamous cousin have both been eluding "forces determined to kill them off." That, naturally, can't last.

In the second section, the central characters are also young or adolescent, and Cook sympathetically raises with them themes of betrayal, guilt and abuse. In a series of ministories, the primary relationship is boys and their mothers, but an appealing exception is "Chalkdust on a Dress." It's a crush-on-a-teacher piece in which the object of the crush goes from being the lovely "Miss Downey" to the unlovely "Mrs. Subotnick": "The poetry's all gone," the narrator muses regretfully, "And that's how love goes."

Looking at the book through parts I, II and IV, you could call it a sensitive, well-crafted literary work, reflective of a sort of hopelessness and male rage spawned from diminishing economic opportunity and fluctuating gender expectations. But Part III blasts that stuffy characterization right out of the water.

Although central characters vary, the stories in Part III read like the tale of a single young family. Characters are professionals. Although they might be anxious, they don't beat their wives. They have a sense of humor. They face tragedy clear-eyed. This is the warm "Love Song" part of Love Songs for the Quarantined.

The stories are arranged chronologically. Grad school. An affecting but not cloying "First Birth." A child dies. The central character frets about bills and masculinity in "What They Didn't Tell You About the Vasectomy." In the title piece, a young family is isolated by an old-fashioned contagion—whooping cough.

But the story that could alone justify the price of admission to this work is a one-sentence, two-page piece that first appeared in Harvard Review.

"Orchestration" is a stream-of-consciousness, music-infused paean to the frustrations, pain and joys of raising children: "... so I want to sing an unending song to those years," says Cook's narrator, "and not just a light melodic 'My Cup Runneth Over With Love,' but also a hard-driving blues number with a too-loud drumbeat ... and ... the rock and roll of sleepless nights and ... boulder breasts ... and brassy blare of ... this home of thick and chaotic love." This is rich, memorable stuff.

By the end of the book, some character types and themes feel repetitive (beware of charming red-headed guys, ladies), but that can be the nature of "collected works," and barely deserves a quibble.

Love Songs for the Quarantined is what "happily ever after" looks like in the real, contemporary world. And it's definitely worth the look.

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